My first conversation was with my friend Erin in Prague, for whom I put in the recipe for blondies. I have been aware for a long time that in standard European grocery sources, one does not find American-style brown sugar. Erin says she makes it out of sugar and Czech molasses. Maybe she learned from McGee: "Brown sugar is soft and clingy because its molasses film -- whose glucose and fructose are more hygroscopic than sucrose -- contains about 35 times as much water as ordinary white sugar." The process for making brown sugar that he describes is more complex than Erin's simple mixing. McGee says brown sugar results from: "adding special syrups that have undergone the ideal amount of browning to refined, redissolved sucrose," followed by further processing that leaves a molasses coating. But for small-scale use her version evidently works -- I hope she makes some blondies and chocolate chip cookies!
In conversations with other friends, I have discussed the differences between the soft, clingy American brown sugar and the more crystalline varieties of "raw" sugar found elsewhere, such as Demarara sugar in England, turbinado sugar in the Caribbean, and cassonade or sucre roux in France. As we ate a delicious flan, we discussed the more classic method of making the brown syrup -- actually carmelizing sugar in a pan -- as opposed to the less risky short cut of melting brown sugar.
The process description in the NYT article today claimed that all brown sugars were originally a direct by-product of one of the repeated steps of centrifuging and boiling down syrup in the process of making white crystalline sugar. To quote:
Brown sugars now come in a range of flavors: Demerara, turbinado and raw sugars are like the “first pressing” of the sugar: they are first to rise to the top during processing and have the lightest molasses flavor. Muscovado, a loamy, crumbly dark brown sugar, has the most. Most commercial brown sugars are not naturally brown from cane solids, but are a late-stage mixture of refined white sugar and molasses.This confirms what I've heard in the past: that various brown sugars occurred during the refining process. When sugar refining was done on a smaller scale, for various reasons the less-fully-refined sugars were used, though less valued. Eventually sugar refining became totally industrial, and suddenly the brown sugars, once considered crude, became valued for the greater variety of flavors. And a new process was invented to produce these versions in a consistent, efficient way. Like bitter greens and potatoes, a food of poor rural people is elevated to a different status.